09 February 2014

Studio One: Programming Matter

Student work from Studio One on display at Wurster Hall.
Studio One is an interdisciplinary studio at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley led by Maria-Paz Gutierrez and sponsored for the first time by a design firm, HOK. This year's Studio One Symposium (7-8 February 2014) was on "The nature of programming matter - programming matter and nature." 

The impressive roster of speakers included Harvard's Joanna Aizenberg and Sanford Kwinter, Sci-Arc's Peter Testa, Stuttgart's Achim Menges, Penn's Shu Yang, Cornell's Jenny Sabin, and Berkeley's Luke Lee and (at LBNL) Delia Millron. These are materials engineers and scientists, chemists, bio-engineers, and architects, most involved in cross-disciplinary research. Gutierrez and HOK's Paul Woolford also spoke. Berkeley and CCA faculty, including historians Irene Cheng and Massimo Mazzotti, served as respondents. 

One major theme was how nature is mined for clues about new materials. As Mazzotti noted, responding to Aizenberg, part of the search is for strategies that can be mimicked. Yet it's clear that much of what stimulates the imagination of these designers, scientists, and engineers takes place at a molecular or nano level. There is a consistent interest with the way nature generates structure, for example, and harnesses light and magnetic waves for reasons that aren't always immediately obvious, but that suggest analogues that, scaled up, might  bring light into interiors or build lighter, more malleable structures. Aizenberg described sponges whose structures embody light sources and a sensitivity to magnetic fields, and live symbiotically with shrimp.

Menges noted that biological systems use relatively few parts, but they grow and adapt to their environments. Much of his work is focused on materials that change - in relation to humidity, for example - without mechanical or human intervention. Millaron, whose work complements Aizenberg, Lee and Yang, said her focus is on rebuilding the molecular structure, rather than applying standard elements to the problems that buildings face in relation to their environments. Gutierrez and Yang discussed polymers. All of this work aims toward a model that Gutierrez described as, "the active is the new passive": that "active materials" do things that would otherwise be handled in ways that we would traditionally call "active." Lee mentioned building materials that can resist pathogens and building systems that can clean gray water using light or the molecular qualities of the material itself. He told me later than urbanization is causing a pathogenic crisis, which buildings will need to play a part in solving.

Robotics was another theme, addressed by Menges and Testa. Menges works with Kuka robots in the same way that other architects work with fab machines, while Testa gangs Stäubli robots up and programs them to "dance." They and Sabin are interested in a craft-like form-making that generates larger wholes from lightweight, demountable parts. Testa is also interested in generating unexpected forms from processes that are programmed, but allow both human intervention and "accident." The work has an animated quality that reflects his Robot House lab's location amid the film industry.

A project at Peter Testa's Robot House at Sci-Arc in L.A.
Lee ranged farthest from architecture, with work at a nano scale that's concerned with how to use viruses to deliver genetic cocktails that can "turn off" malignant tumors and how a single chip might be used in the future to analyze a drop of blood, providing the same diagnostic data as current "blood work" without the need for vials of blood or labs to do the analysis. While Sabin's work is bound up with Yang's material science and the interdisciplinary work of Peter Lloyd Jones, her work exploits new materials using techniques from weaving and knitting, for example. Like some of Menges's work, it produces large, spherical "enclosures" from a small number of parts that can be collapsed and carried. (Her Nike piece fits into a bag and weighs 150 pounds.) 

In her response to Yang and Sabin, Cheng noted that their work shows the value of visualization to the understanding of matter. She compared it to the neglected but crucial contributions of Rosalind Franklin and Odile Crick to the identification of the DNA double helix, each providing visual clues to its structure. (In Franklin's case, her visualization was simply pilfered by the Nobel Prize-winning men, Cheng said.) Sabin's work with Jones also exemplifies the importance of visualization to their collaborative materials research. 

Woolford described two projects that used biomimicry as a design approach, one of which was done in tandem with the Studio One students. While he talked about the analogies from nature they chose and applied, he glossed over the details of their process and the analogies themselves. This made it harder to understand the logic of their choices. As part of her response to Yang and Sabin, Cheng argued that neither of them take nature as a "right" model. Yang actively alters nature, while Sabin has studied cancer cells. Materials research benefits from not taking nature literally, Cheng said. This may also be true for biomimicry.

In passing, Woolford bemoaned the situation in which large firms like his operate: innovations have to be proven for a generation before clients and builders will embrace them. I don't doubt this, but so much experimentation is happening now at a smaller scale. Even in large firms, younger designers are looking for ways to break the mold. Many of the experimenters have been at it long enough that they're starting to scale up. This was the message of last year's Studio One Symposium. I may be optimistic, but I think the gap will steadily diminish.

Sanford Kwinter on deck.
In his wrap-up talk, Kwinter said that this moment is characterized by a "fluidity of collaborations" that is a new development. But we also face "the problem of matter and its relation to regimes of control and regulation," a comment that picked up on Woolford's "generation gap" assertion.

The problem of nature is fundamental to the 21st century, he added, noting that what distinguishes the modern period is the convergence of physics and biology. He cited Whitehead's observation that biology deals with larger organisms and physics with smaller ones. Kwinter mentioned three people whose work has a direct bearing on matter as the symposium approached it: the physicist Erwin Schrödinger; the biologist Joseph Needham; and the metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith. 

Schrödinger saw life as a pattern in time that unfolds an an asymmetric matrix, Kwinter said, seeing matter and structure as a field that is irregular and aperiodic. Needham stressed the importance of field work - observing nature - and of doing research without application to feed the "systems of explanation" about natural phenomena. Smith too felt that the theoretical always followed the empirical in science. He argued that matter couldn't be studied in a reductive way - that metallurgy was more like biology than physics, because matter is often in a "middle state": solids are like foams, films of matter than are structural but also in motion. Biology, Smith said, is a historical science because it's a sequence of events, and this history is also internal to matter.

Part of the panel: Makower, Menges, Lee, Testa, Kwinter.
The panel that followed Kwinter's talk was the least satisfactory part of the symposium. The moderator, "green entrepreneur" Joel Makower, asked the perennial "How can this be applied to the mainstream?" question that, ignoring Kwinter's talk, felt like a non-sequitor.

Asked what would help them make progress, Gutierrez and Sabin noted the difficulties of interdisciplinary work in the face of  turf wars among fields and problems of funding and resources. The panel discussion surfaced the issue of monopolizing discourse, as with the tussle over design between architecture and engineering. But the whole thrust of the symposium points to the need for a shared language with which to discuss problems that touch many fields, to which all of them must contribute, since none of them has a monopoly on the knowledge that's required.

I asked Kwinter afterward if he knew Paul Feyerabend's work. Yes, he said, and he'd thought of him, rereading Karl Popper. The enfant terrible philosopher of science argued for ignoring the border conditions and methodological niceties of "official" science. "Anything goes," he famously declared. This applies equally to the symposium's topics. We need a "new science" in Vico's sense of blending disciplines to get closer to the heart of the matter. We need a new attitude, also, that accepts that some failure is inherently part of making progress, and that "tuning" and "calibrating" are intrinsic to matter's unfolding. If we can live with that in other walks of life - airplanes and cars adopting carbon fibers, for example - it should be possible in the built environment.